Oscar Micheaux: First black filmmaker fearlessly showed racial truths

AJC Sepia Black History Month

Long before Melvin Van Peebles and Spike Lee received acclaim for their thought-provoking narratives on the black experience, a Chicago porter broke cinematic barriers at the beginning of the 20th century.

Oscar Micheaux, the man considered to be the first African-American filmmaker, created movies about the perils of racial inequality and the whimsical lives of black people living in the West.

Micheaux, birth name Oscar Michaux, was born in January 1884 in Metropolis, Ill. By age 17, he’d ventured out on his own to Chicago, where he worked as a Pullman porter. Years later, he was drawn by the allure of the West, so he moved again — this time to South Dakota.

»MORE: Read the full AJC Sepia Black History Month Series

His life of homesteading in the midst of white families in South Dakota and Iowa would be the inspiration for his book “The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer,” which he self-published in 1913. The success of that book led Micheaux to publish a second book in 1917, “The Homesteader.”

Shortly thereafter, a film company offered Micheaux a production deal for a movie adaptation of “The Homesteader.” But negotiations failed over his involvement in the film, and the deal folded.

Micheaux took the failure as an opportunity to turn his tales of the West into his own films. He eventually transformed his publishing firm, Western Book Supply Co. — which he funded by selling books door to door — into the Micheaux Film and Book Co.

»MORE: Dolemite: Micheaux’s heir?

The 1919 limited release of “The Homesteader” movie in Chicago made history as the first feature-length film by an African-American.

Micheaux didn’t stop there. His groundbreaking film “Within Our Gates” was a bold and galvanizing response to D.W. Griffith’s controversial film “Birth of a Nation,” which glorified the Ku Klux Klan.

In “Gates,” a biracial teacher goes North to raise funds for a black school in the South. Micheaux depicts a much more realistic view of white supremacy, including the horror of lynchings and the near rape of the protagonist Landry by a white preacher.

Micheaux ran his own production company and wrote and produced his own films during the Progressive Era — a period in the early 1900s when there was widespread social activism and a demand for political reforms, virtually none of which applied to blacks.

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Despite financial strains and the obstacles of racism, Micheaux’s prolific career would spawn more than 40 movies, many of which featured the legendary artist and activist Paul Robeson, as well as other actors who became staples in Micheaux films, including Lorenzo Tucker and Bee Freeman.

Micheaux continued to write and tour the country until his death on March 25, 1951. Yet Hollywood would not commemorate his impact on the film industry until 1986, when the Directors Guild of America posthumously named Micheaux a recipient of the Golden Jubilee Special Directorial Award.

And in the year that America’s first black filmmaker finally received his due, the young, black and Brooklyn-bred Spike Lee burst onto the scene. His first feature-length film, “She’s Gotta Have It,” marked the start of the “new black cinema” movement that saw the release of movies such as “Do the Right Thing,” “New Jack City” and “Menace II Society.”

The 2007 biography “The Great and Only: The Life of America’s First Black Filmmaker” helped a new generation of future filmmakers learn about Micheaux’s work and legacy. Plans are in place to adapt the book into an HBO film starring Tyler Perry, according to Variety.

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“There are so many parallels between the groundbreaking work that Micheaux pioneered and Perry’s achievements as an artist that it feels like a natural fit,” said Neil Meron, one of the producers behind the Micheaux biopic.

Micheaux’s legacy is best characterized by the brief but poignant words carved on his gravestone:

“A Man Ahead of His Time.”

Throughout February, we’ll spotlight a different African-American pioneer in the daily Living section Monday through Thursday and Saturday, and in the Metro section on Fridays and Sundays. Go to myAJC.com/black-history-month for more subscriber exclusives on people, places and organizations that have changed the world, and to see videos on the African-American pioneer featured here each day.

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